Avoiding Invalidation Part 1

Who wouldn’t want a happy family? The good news is there are small, concrete changes we can all make to improve our relationships. For one thing, we can replace invalidation with empathy.

What is “invalidation”? This series helps you to recognize invalidation so that you can protect yourself from it, and make sure you aren’t accidentally invalidating others.

When people invalidate you, it doesn’t feel good. The minor examples are so common in our society that you might not fully realize the problem. At other times, you’re likely to feel let down, frustrated, or even angry because of the other person’s comment. The more severe kinds of invalidation can eventually cause emotional and psychological damage.

While invalidation takes many forms, all the examples convey some kind of non-acceptance or criticism. When someone invalidates you, you hear a subtle—or not-so-subtle—message that you don’t have a right to your feelings, or that somehow your perceptions are wrong, or that you shouldn’t have expressed your feelings.

One of the mildest categories of invalidating remarks is called “minimizing feelings.” Examples include:

  • “You must be kidding!”
  • “It can’t be that bad.”
  • “You’re just tired.”
  • “Well, yeah, nothing’s perfect.”

Do you see how these are invalidating remarks? The first three suggest you can’t possibly be right. The third one suggests that your upset feelings are merely due to fatigue, which means you don’t really have a legitimate concern.

The fourth one suggests the only reason you’re complaining is because you were expecting perfection—which of course is not a good idea. So do you see how this comment makes YOU the problem? It implies your expectations are the only problem. Most likely, you were trying to say you felt troubled by some particular negative event or behavior. Perfection was not the issue.

I still remember using the “You’re just tired” comment when my pre-school-aged daughters were fussy and I knew nap time was approaching. I didn’t realize I was invalidating their upset feelings. I don’t recall now why they were upset, but I’m sure there was a logical reason. Their need for a nap made them more prone to tears at those times—we all can tend to react more strongly when we’re tired—but their feelings were still legitimate.

Whenever we learn about things we could have done better in the past, it does us no good to stay stuck in feeling bad. What’s important is to improve our present and future, and apologize and make amends when that’s appropriate.

Instead of invalidating others, we can choose to show understanding and simply paraphrase back to the other person what he/she said with a sympathetic voice. One useful beginning is to say “It sounds like you . . . .”

Here are examples: “It sounds like you’re saying that hurt your feelings.” Or: “It sounds like you’re feeling pretty upset about that.”

The goal of empathy is to show you listened, show you understand the meaning and the emotion, and invite the other person to open up and say more. Empathy is not the same as agreement.

There’s more to say about how to be empathetic, and I need 3-4 hours to teach people how to do it, but that gives you a brief glimpse of what empathy looks like.

Next time we’ll move on to a different category of invalidation.

© 2017 Caryl Schlicher A Bridge To Excellence

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